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Hotmail swims against rising tide of spam


You think you've got a problem with spam e-mail because of the dozen or so you get every day? Welcome to Hotmail, where they get more than 1-billion.

Hotmail, owned by Microsoft, is, by virtue of its 110-million users, among the world's biggest e-mail providers. It is, therefore, one of the world's biggest spam buckets. The number of messages it gets each day is closing in on 2-billion. Up to 80 percent are spam.

Spam, for someone in the e-mail business today, is like cold for someone at the North Pole. It's everywhere, and if you forget about it even for a minute, it can kill you. Hotmail engineers constantly monitor their machines. A sudden deluge of spam, if not tended to, will take down the system.

The Internet wasn't supposed to be this way. But then spam, though universally despised, is the purest expression of the Internet's egalitarian technical vision. Everyone is connected; communications are free; anyone can be a communicator.

"Spam is the Internet's only indigenous folk art," is how Steve Steinberg, a San Francisco researcher, consoles himself while deleting his daily spam.

Internet arithmetic favors spam. Type "bulk e-mail" in Yahoo and you'll see a long list of offers to sell you millions of addresses for a few hundred bucks. That means the tiniest acceptance rate puts you in the black. And so the contemporary spammer is not some shadowy pornmonger but a debt-plagued middle classer who decides to try spam instead of, say, Amway.

Hotmail started out free of charge. One reason Microsoft is trying to persuade users to pay for it is that the drastic increase in spam has made free e-mail very expensive to offer.

Bengt-Erik Norum, a Hotmail operations manager, says spam, by nature, arrives all at once _ in torrents _ rather than in a steady stream, like regular e-mail. To handle these peaks, he said, you need to greatly overbuild your computer system.

This overbuilding is evident in Hotmail's bunkerlike operations center in San Jose, Calif. In some ways, it's the house that spam built. The rooms _ icy cold from air conditioning _ house row upon row of stacked gear, panel lights all blinking. New gear is added almost weekly to keep up with demand.

There are thousands of servers and many pedabytes of storage. (Each pedabyte is 1-million gigabytes; you probably have 10 or 20 gigabytes on your PC.) The electricity used here could power 7,000 homes.

When you talk to Hotmail staffers, it's obvious how proud they are of their technical accomplishment: keeping Hotmail humming along despite, for example, the tripling of e-mail in the past year. Too bad much of that victory involves simply not letting the spammers win.

Hotmail and the spammers play the inevitable technical cat-and-mouse game. Hotmail sets up dummy e-mail accounts to monitor spam. So, of course, do the spammers, monitoring the monitoring.

The graphs for spam at Hotmail show a sharp downturn whenever a new antispam feature goes live.

But soon, the line starts moving up again, and after a few weeks, it's nearly back to normal.

The battle continues.